Can nest conditions predict what kinds of predators can masticate a bird? What effects do controlled drugs have on the formation of persistent follicles in beef cows? How resourceful is the neglected art of video poetry? These were just some of the questions that approximately 120 undergraduate students were attempting to answer during the summer of 2007.
The Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum, held at the end of July at the Bond Life Sciences Center, allowed students to present their scholarly research projects to the public. MU students specializing in an array of concentrations were stationed at posters describing their findings.
Ted Tarkow, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science and director of the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program, talks lovingly of the hundreds of students he has watched blossom into successful researchers throughout the history of the twelve-year-old program, and he reminisces about how it all began: “A group of us had thought for quite some time that anything we could do for bright and talented undergraduates to show the interconnection between research and teaching would enrich their undergraduate program of study. We thought also that by taking highly productive faculty and having them be mentors of really bright students, their own research agendas would be enhanced.” That was the goal. It was a win-win proposition. And the results have been dramatic.
In this segment, faculty members talk about how their research and creative activity contribute to better teaching, as well as the relationship between these two aspects of their work. Frequently, the two endeavors intersect, profitting both. Carmen Chicone remarks, “If you are actively involved in your subject, you’re bound to be a much better teacher.”
Graduate students are often required to spend a good portion of their education as researchers. The Undergraduate Research program at MU offers students a preview of what graduate school is all about. Blockus explains that the summer research program is helpful to students considering graduate education: “Students who do research in the summer get a real taste of that so they can confirm that that’s what they want to do.” The undergraduate students regularly work with professors, scholars, and post-doctorate fellows during the course of their research.
Even though the student researchers are usually not going to get their studies published in an academic journal, these researchers have an opportunity to make a difference with their findings. For example, every summer approximately twenty researchers go to Jefferson City to present their finding to lawmakers. “We work with the students to take their posters, turn those posters into something that very accessible to the public and elected officials,” Blockus explains. “This is our way of reminding the state officials of some of the things we do, and the special ways we are adding value to student experiences here at MU.”
Some of the images that people have about research include laboratories, as well as boring and solitary confinement. Well, Blockus tries to dispel some of these misconceptions. These undergraduate researchers have an opportunity to work one-on-one with researchers from a variety of countries (including Pakistan, South Korea, Australia, England, and Israel). “It really helps broaden their understanding of how science is a global experience” says Blockus. “The students are really working in a team environment, learning how to interact with other people on projects.”
The undergraduate research experience is a unique opportunity. Blockus reports that aside from preparing students for graduate school, research is a growth experience in which students will be “perhaps encountering some of the same frustrations, challenges, and problems as well as some of the same successes and accomplishments.” She observes that students “learn from each other, feed off of each other, and hopefully form friendships as well.” Blockus herself is living proof of the power of research on a young mind. As a college student she spent a summer working for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, OARDC, a “very valuable experience.”
Student researchers have an opportunity to present their research at academic conferences across the country. Not only do they get to expose their work to a new audience, but they can also observe other projects outside of MU. “There are plenty of opportunities for students to see what’s happening not only in their own research group, but also in other research groups,” Blockus says. In the past, undergraduate researchers have traveled to major cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City. “That’s a really neat experience,” she explains, “whether it is interacting with other scholars on campus or with scholars across the country or world.”
Beyond the invaluable learning experience, successful student applicants are also awarded stipends (ranging from $500 to $3,000) to support their research.
“The program has evolved, when all is said and done, very insignificantly. We’ve taken what we think is a good idea and built on it…. We’re still dealing with talented faculty working with talented students in ways that show the interconnectivity of research and teaching.”
The duration of each project varies depending upon the discipline and the student’s background, and the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program allows for such individualization of research projects.
The Arts and Science Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program, begun in 1994, aims to support undergraduate participation in faculty research. Students in the program have the chance to be immersed in a research career and learn that “good research, good creativity, and good teaching go hand in glove.”